Following Mueller’s Statement, Blame-Shifting Looms on the Horizon
Like it or not, Robert Mueller’s carefully-worded declaration, delivered to the media on May 29, can be characterized as a masterpiece of understatement and political brinkmanship. First of all, his views on President Trump’s eventual unlawful behavior were superbly calibrated. No less important, by avoiding to testify before Congress, and by refusing to take questions from the media, Mueller set for himself, and himself alone, the scope and limits of what he was supposed to say.
It didn’t have to be that way. Suffice it to compare Mueller’s evasiveness with the more resolute attitude of a previous special prosecutor, namely Ken Starr, who conducted a probe in 1998 into then-President Clinton’s presumed misconduct vis-à-vis White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The contrast between these two stances is amply documented by James Hohmann in his Daily 202 column in the Washington Post.
True, the rules that govern the work of special prosecutors have changed since Ken Starr’s times. All the same, there was still ample room for Mueller to be more specific and make a formal impeachment referral (if he had wished or dared to do so.)
It comes as no surprise that Mueller’s statement did not please any of the two contending sides, as both New York Times correspondent Peter Baker and Washington Post Jonathan Capehart have separately pointed out.
Comments from the mainstream media were not kind at all. Michael Wolff – the storyteller par excellence of Trump’s doings – went as far as saying that Mueller “blew it.” Washington Post columnist David Ignatius regretted in turn that “Mueller went out like a lamb when the country needed a lion.” And Wolff and Ignatius are not alone in feeling that way.
The Donald Trump camp, for its part, was taken aback by that statement. The President’s initial tweet (“case closed”), as well as the instant declaration of the White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders (“there was no real news”), tried to minimize the impact of Mueller’s declaration. The U.S. President, however, quickly adopted a more aggressive tone, describing Mueller as “totally conflicted” and referring to Mueller’s team as “some of the worst human beings on Earth.”
The inconclusiveness of Mueller’s assertions leaves the space wide open for two conflictive inquiries: the one that the Democratic electoral base and a large number of Democratic lawmakers and presidential hopefuls strongly call for with regard to Trump’s obstruction-of-justice allegations; and the investigation that Attorney General William Barr has initiated on a presumed conspiracy, supposedly orchestrated by former President Obama’s FBI and Justice Department of Justice, against Trump’s 2016 campaign.
As regards the possible outcome of those two competing probes, all bets are off. This is all the more so as the likelihood of snowballing confessions cannot be ruled out.
Mueller’s report describes a consistent effort by the president to use his office to obstruct or otherwise corruptly impede the Russian election interference investigation because it put his interests at risk.
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) May 23, 2019
Democrats were encouraged by GOP Rep. Justin Amash’s call for impeaching President Trump. That move, Democrats hope, may give ground for other Republicans to smell trouble in their own camp and endorse Amash’s call.
The problem is that Amash hardly represents the prevailing GOP’s way of thinking. Washington Post columnist Henri Olsen recalls that Amash has been labeled a “libertarian-leaning” congressman and describes him as “a libertarian sitting as a Republican.” The chances of his impeachment call’s being endorsed by other GOP figures are, therefore, limited at best.
All too naturally, political analyst Megan McArdle, writing, too, in the Washington Post, indicates that “[the] impeachment snowball can only form in the right environment, and today, that environment doesn’t exist.”
As a matter of fact, those who have strong reasons to fret about developments in the period ahead are the members of the Democratic leadership.
For starters, they are confronted with the Hamletian dilemma of pleasing their electoral base and impeaching the President, at the expense of exacerbating impeachment-weariness among swing voters or skirting that path at the expense of frustrating and demobilizing their base.
There is still more to cause concern among Democrats. Indeed, AG Barr’s probe into an eventual conspiracy by President Obama’s DoJ and FBI against Trump’s 2016 campaign has merely begun, and the specter of snowballing declarations from those two offices already looms large on the horizon. As documented by Eric Felten in RealClearInvestigations, “[there] are a growing number of indicators that the leading players in the [Russia-collusion] drama are turning on one another.”
At some point of the AG’s investigation, each of the two incriminated institutions may try to save itself and put the blame on the other one – all the more so as those two agencies (as becomes apparent from Felten’s research) don’t see eye to eye. Blame-shifting may also take place among individual officers within each of those bureaus. Hence Felten’s assertion that, between the DoJ and the FBI, “the knives are out.”
That blame-swapping game, should it materialize, would be detrimental to the Democratic, anti-Trump camp inasmuch as it would tend to corroborate the existence of a conspiracy mounted against Trump campaign at the twilight of the Obama administration.
Add to this the fact that, as recounted by Paul Sperry in RealClearInvestigations, some witnesses and targets of Mueller’s probe have begun to talk about what they endured during the Mueller probe and what they are saying with regard to the strong-arm, intimidating methods utilized by Mueller’s team (“harshly aggressive tactics to pressure individuals to either cop to crimes or implicate others in felonies involving collusion”) is not pretty at all. Some of those individuals have already filed complaints; others may follow suit. Needless to say, this is a further boon for Trump’s camp.
If by being evasive and ambiguous, special prosecutor Mueller tried to throw a monkey wrench into the debate around the U.S. President in Washington D.C., everyone must admit that he did an impeccable job.